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Anti-terrorism laws have ‘chilling effect’ on vital aid deliveries to Somalia

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The Guardian — Strict British and US counter-terrorism laws are discouraging humanitarian organisations from delivering vital emergency assistance to millions of people facing starvation and fatal diseases in drought-hit Somalia.

Senior humanitarian officials say the laws, which target any individual or organisation found to have materially assisted a terrorist group, exert a “chilling effect” on vital assistance in areas of Somalia controlled by Islamic militants from al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate.

The worst drought for 40 years in the unstable east African country threatens 6 million people with famine. Most of the worst hit – around 2 million people – live in areas run by al-Shabaab.

Humanitarian officials say it is almost impossible to guarantee that no aid will reach the extremists if they work there, and fear this means they will fall foul of the laws, exposing them to potential prosecution.

“US and UK terrorism financing laws are a significant discouragement to operating in al-Shabaab areas. At the very least, you could end up wasting a huge amount of time explaining yourself; at worst, if substantial amounts of aid were appropriated by al-Shabaab – as has happened to people in the past – you could end up in court with your organisation shut down,” said the country director of one major international NGO working in Somalia.

Moving any aid by land in Somalia involves paying “taxes” at road blocks run by different armed groups, including al-Shabaab. UN experts estimated that at the height of its power in 2010 al-Shabaab imposed fees and taxes that totalled on average $90,000 (£70,200) per aid agency every six months.

Also, any access to al-Shabaab controlled areas for NGOs would have to involve negotiations with local community and clan elders, of whom some are likely to be connected to the insurgents.

Justin Brady, a senior UN humanitarian official responsible for overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars of international assistance in Somalia, said the primary reason for NGOs avoiding areas run by al-Shabaab remained the security threat posed by the Islamic militants. But, he said, the US and UK laws were poorly understood and a disincentive.

A UN humanitarian aircraft close to Dinsoor, central Somalia. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

“Once you get past [the security issues], that becomes a consideration and you have to figure out how you can work there … It has a chilling effect. I’m sure in Washington or London it’s clear what [the laws] meant but here it is much more difficult,” Brady said.

Senior UN officials in Somalia recently sought clarification from the US and the UK about potential prosecution. Unofficial advice to NGOs, given via the UN, is that “a blind eye” is being turned to any humanitarian operations in al-Shabaab controlled zones following legal changes to allow a “humanitarian exception” to the counter-terrorist laws.

British officials last week said the NGOs’ anxiety is unfounded, and pointed out that no one has been prosecuted by the US or the UK under the legislation.

“The bottom line is that there is an emergency and the priority for everyone is getting aid to those who need it, wherever they are,” said David Concar, the British ambassador to Somalia, in an interview with the Guardian in Mogadishu last week.

“We know some organisations are successfully getting aid through to communities in dire need of help in al-Shabaab controlled areas. [Counter terrorist] legislation is not intended to stop – and nor should it actually stop – any aid groups from working in such areas as long as they have the necessary controls in place and they’re not deliberately supporting terrorists.”

Despite the reassurances, deep anxiety remains among aid planners, who say they need clear guidance from the US and UK. This would be politically difficult, as it could be seen as sanctioning negotiations with terrorist organisations.

In 2011, during the last major famine, little aid made it into al-Shabaab held areas. One expert report, published after the emergency, listed “constraints on aid agencies related to counter-terrorism legislation” as important factors contributing to the death toll of more than 250,000.

The British government was forced to write off aid worth £480,000 following a series of thefts between November 2011 and February 2012 by al-Shabaab from the offices and warehouses of partner organisations.

In this new crisis, the Islamic militants have allowed women and children, and some men, to leave areas under their control to travel to government-held towns – such as Baidoa, 250km north-west of Mogadishu – where medical assistance, water and food is available.

A young boy displaced from his home by the drought sleeps outside a tent in the Mogadishu camp where he and his family live. Photograph: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/Unicef

The greatest obstacles to delivering desperately needed assistance to those who live in zones controlled, or at least contested, by al-Shabaab remain the potential for corruption and for direct attacks from the militants.

Senior NGO officials said the laws forced them to “think twice” before undertaking such operations – even if security was guaranteed. Any humanitarian activity is therefore “under the radar”, thus ruling out major interventions.

“Everyone wants to turn a blind eye, but that means you’re not going to get to scale. We are not going to put down a large cholera treatment centre which everyone can get to, for example, so we can’t get quantity, and because we can’t get technical experts in we can’t get quality either,” Brady said.

In September 2009, the Obama administration temporarily suspended shipments of US food aid to Somalia pending a policy review.

Experts say humanitarian agencies have a right under the Geneva conventions and international humanitarian law to negotiate with non-state parties to an armed conflict to access famine victims.

The concerns about possible prosecution underline the difficulties of delivering aid in the middle of a civil war, where communities in desperate need are in zones controlled by a proscribed terrorist organisation.

The UN says it needs $4.4bn (£3.4bn) for humanitarian assistance to more than 20 million people facing famine in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen in what officials have described as the biggest humanitarian emergency since the organisation was founded in 1945.

Each of the four countries is deep in a conflict involving an array of local and regional actors. In three of them, Islamic militants, including al-Qaida and Islamic State, play a role, making access to vulnerable communities extremely difficult.

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UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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US wary of Islamic extremism growth in Africa

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PENTAGON — With the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate almost completely retaken in Iraq and Syria, many American leaders are concerned the group might try to create a new hub elsewhere.

Islamic extremism creeps up in impoverished, politically disillusioned populations with masses of young, unemployed Muslims, and these conditions can be seen across the African continent.

“Africa is going to be the spot; it’s going to be the hot spot,” Congressman Michael McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a hearing last month.

In a letter sent to congressional leaders on Monday detailing counter-extremism efforts, President Donald Trump said his administration had placed a “particular focus” on the U.S. Central and Africa Commands’ areas of responsibility.

While tens of thousands of American troops are deployed to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where U.S. Central Command oversees military operations, the entire African continent has less than half the number of American troops deployed in the single country of Afghanistan.

But increases in terrorist activity are among the reasons why American military presence has grown rapidly on the continent, from 3,200 military personnel in 2009 to some 6,500 military personnel today.

The bulk of U.S. military personnel in Africa, some 4,000 Americans, are based in Djibouti, home to the United States’ only military base on the continent. The second-largest concentration is in the Lake Chad Basin, where some 1,300 U.S. military personnel work in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad to help strengthen local militaries and counter Boko Haram, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups. About 500 U.S. military personnel are based in Somalia, where al-Shabaab terrorists are battling the U.N.-backed Somali government and Islamic State operates in mountainous areas of Puntland.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is critical of the United States’ policy toward Africa.

“There is African concern that the U.S. approach is becoming rather more militarized, or more concerned with military and security issues than had been the case in the past,” he told VOA.

Campbell said he believes that the main thrust of American effort on the continent should be on the “root causes” of extremism — poor governance and lack of economic development. But this effort will likely prove more difficult if the State Department’s budget is slashed, as proposed by the Trump administration.

Ripe for recruitment

Africa’s growing young, male population is ripe for recruitment, Africa Command’s senior enlisted leader, Command Chief Master Sergeant Ramon Colon-Lopez told VOA in an exclusive interview.

“When you have no options and here comes an extremist that is offering you a motorbike and a bride, what do you think you’re going to do? Your family’s starving, you can’t provide for them and somebody’s giving you an option,” he said.

The Trump administration this year changed rules governing U.Smilitary operations in the area, expanding the ability to strike al-Shabab and IS fighters in the war-torn country of Somalia. The change allowed offensive strikes against the terrorists rather than limiting attacks to defending African allies and their American advisers on the ground. This matches a similar expansion of strike authorities this year against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where under President Barack Obama, the Taliban had to be in close proximity to Afghan National Security Forces before they could be targeted.

The new authorities have led to an increase in strikes in Somalia. The latest of the more than 30 U.S. strikes across the west African country this year came on Tuesday, taking out what U.S. military officials said was an al-Shabab car bomb planned for use in an attack in the capital, Mogadishu.

Colon-Lopez said the new authorities have “definitely” helped the counter-terrorism mission in Africa.

The U.S. has also used air strikes this year to target IS militants in Libya. Just last month, the U.S. and Niger reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terrorist groups in the African nation, according to a U.S. official. It is still unclear whether the drones in Niger will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Special operations forces

In the past decade, Africa has also seen a vast expansion of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units that are specifically trained and use special weapons, and tactics.

In 2006, Special Operations Forces made up just 1 percent of U.S. military personnel. Today, there are about 1,200 Special Operations Forces deployed to Africa, or about 15 percent of the total deployed force, a U.S. military official told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

Their jobs range from short-term training to long-term partnering with African military units that place American troops in potentially dangerous locations.

That’s what happened in Niger in October, when four American soldiers died in an IS ambush, and in May, when a U.S. Navy SEAL died aiding Somali security forces against al-Shabaab.

“I worry about the outposts that have U.S. military members that are getting after this threat,” Colon-Lopez said. “I worry about them because we can see what happened out there when the enemy decides to overpower the United States of America.”

The number of times that U.S. troops are exposed to danger in Africa are rare, a U.S. military official told VOA, adding that Special Operations Forces limit their involvement with local partners because of the strong desire to find “African solutions to African problems.”

“Our role is more like preventative medicine in Africa than emergency surgery,” the military official said.

However, if the security need grows in the coming months, more Americans troops could find themselves in dangerous situations across the continent.

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Somalia to Probe Evictions of Thousands of Displaced Families

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NAIROBI — The Somali government responded to widespread criticism by aid agencies on Wednesday, promising to investigate reports that thousands of families fleeing drought and conflict were forcefully evicted from more than 20 informal camps.

The United Nations and groups such as the Somalia NGO Consortium say more than 4,000 families, or about 20,000 people, had their homes bulldozed last month inside settlements on the outskirts of the capital of Mogadishu.

The demolitions on private land were unannounced, they said, and pleas by the community — largely women and children — for time to collect their belongings and go safely were not granted.

Some aid workers who witnessed the evictions said uniformed government soldiers were involved in the demolitions.

“Regarding the forced evictions, we are really deeply concerned. We are investigating the number of evictions,” Gamal Hassan, Somalia’s minister for planning, investment and economic development, told participants at a U.N. event.

“We have to make sure we investigate and have to make sure we know exactly what happened. And then we will issue a report and you can take a look at it and see what happened and how it happened,” he said by video conference from Mogadishu.

The impoverished east African nation of more than 12 million people has been witnessing an unprecedented drought, with poor rains for four consecutive seasons.

It has also been mired in conflict since 1991 and its Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al Shabab.

The U.N. says drought and violence have forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, often in informal settlements located around small towns and cities.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Wednesday condemned the demolitions, and said the fate of those evicted did not fit with the progress Somalia has made.

“Not only did these people lose their homes, but the basic infrastructure that was provided by humanitarian partners and donors, such as latrines, schools, community centers — has been destroyed,” said Peter De Clercq, head of OCHA in Somalia, at the same event.

“I reiterate my condemnation of this very serious protection violation and call on the national and regional authorities to take necessary steps to protect and assist these people who have suffered so much.”

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